Genomics and the Ark: An Ecocentric Perspective on Human History


Views of ourselves in relationship to the rest of the biosphere are changing. Theocentric and anthropocentric perspectives are giving way to more ecocentric views on the history, present, and future of humankind. Novel sciences, such as genomics, have deepened and broadened our understanding of the process of anthropogenesis, the coming into being of humans. Genomics suggests that early human history must be regarded as a complex narrative of evolving ecosystems, in which human evolution both influenced and was influenced by the evolution of companion species. During the agricultural revolution, human beings designed small-scale artificial ecosystems or evolutionary "Arks," in which networks of plants, animals, and microorganisms coevolved. Currently, our attitude towards this process seems subject to a paradoxical reversal. The boundaries of the Ark have dramatically broadened, and genomics is not only being used to increase our understanding of our ecological past, but may also help us to conserve, reconstruct, or even revivify species and ecosystems to whose degradation or (near) extinction we have contributed. This article explores the role of genomics in the elaboration of a more ecocentric view of ourselves with the help of two examples, namely the renaissance of Paleolithic diets and of Pleistocene parks. It argues that an understanding of the world in ecocentric terms requires new partnerships and mutually beneficial forms of collaboration and convergence between life sciences, social sciences, and the humanities.